Power Tools for Guitar Building

Power tools such as routers, drills and sanders can be very useful and can save you a good bit of time if used properly in guitar building. These days it seems like everyone has some power tools around the house for minor repairs or remodeling. For guitar building you only need a few different types of power tools to get the job done. They can make easy work of an otherwise tough job, and they can save you a lot of time.

Getting the right combination of machine and bit for a particular job is essential for getting the best possible results. All tools, especially power tools and equipment, are designed to work optimally with the right bits or cutters. Not using them properly by overtaxing the design specifications of your power tools will lead to problems down the road. There are power tools in my shop that are 30 years old. Take care with them and they will last.

Power tools can be your best friend or your worst enemy.  If you are afraid of using them you will have to overcome your fear. If you are cavalier using them you need to learn to respect them.

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Routers & Bits – Best Choices for Guitar Building

The number one power tool for guitar building is the router. You must  have a few different types of routers in the shop. Routers will save you an immense amount of time with certain processes. Things like cutting bindings channels and installing a rosette are not easy or fun to do by hand. Believe me – I’ve done it. My power tool collection includes 6 laminate trimming routers. I have most of them set up to perform a specific task. This is a great time saver if you are guitar building for a living. If you turn professional you have to start thinking about how time equates to money. You shouldn’t rush but you need to work efficiently.

A recommended list of routers would include:

  • At least one laminate trimming router
  • 1 1/2HP router that accepts both1/4″and 1/2″collets

The laminate trimmer is for trimming thin material such as the top and back, cutting the channels for the bindings, inlaying the rosette, and making the patch.

The 1 1/2HP router is used for trimming thicker stock such as the neck . The  1 1/2 HP router can also be mounted underneath a router table. This may be more comfortable to use and a bit safer for certain tasks.

Variable Speed

One of the greatest advancements in power tools in my opinion is making laminate trimmers variable speed. I will not buy any routers that are not variable speed. Laminate trimmers crank along at 30,000 RPM. This is simply too fast. At this speed your bits will dull in no time leaving brown burn marks  everywhere. The router is also more difficult to control at this speed and which can cause accidents that may injure you, your project, or both.

You should be cutting at less than half that speed. The router will cut cleanly. It will not easily overheat. And it will feel much safer when using it. And it feels safer because it is.  That is why I always buy variable speed routers. You can set the speed that it cuts at and slow it down so that it is much more manageable.

Circle Cutting Router Attachment for Rosettes, Patches & Soundhole

Power Tools - 2-Pi Circle Cutting Router Attachment in ActionThe attachment used to inlay the rosette is a circle cutting device which is also used to cut out the sound hole and make the dough nut shaped patch under the rosette. There are a few attachments available commercially for this purpose. I developed the 2-Pi Rosette Cutting Router Attachment for  for this purpose. This device is available in the store. It is a clear acrylic attachment that will mount on any laminate trimming router. The acrylic being clear allows you to see what is going on as you cut. The device is adjustable and will cut any type of rosette.

Binding/Purfling Channel Cutter Attachment

Cutting your binding and purfling channels by hand is a drag. Trust me I have done it. There are a number of gadgets and machines available for this purpose in luthier supply stores but they are all expensive. I have never owned one.

I made the attachment used in the book and dvd for cutting purfling channels. I also used it for cutting binding channels before I built the binding cutting machine below.

The binding cutter router attachment I developed is an adjustable two point fence which is also mounted to the base of the router.  The adjustment range required on this device is fairly small since it is only used to cut the channel for the bindings and the purflings. It is a two part attachment consisting of one part that mounts to the router, and the other part is adjustable and rides on the guitar.  The piece that rides on the guitar is shaped so that it touches the surface of the instrument only behind the bit, the other point of contact is the handle. This edge of the handle that touches the guitar is rounded so that the high point is in the middle. This edge rides along the side of the instrument keeping it perpendicular to the top and back. The results with this machine are worth the effort it takes to make it. Blueprints to make this attachment are available in the store.

Portable Power Drills

Power Tools - Using a cordless drill to drill registration holesAnother must have power tool for guitar building is a power drill. With power drills its a no-brainer – a portable battery operated power drill is best. Mine is very old, bigger and heavier than the new ones, but it still works great.

My suggestion is get as much torque as you can afford. And if it does not come with a second battery I recommend getting one. If not you will be standing around waiting for it to charge up fairly often. I still have an electric hand drill for when all my batteries are dead, or it is a particularly tough drilling job. If you choose an electric power drill get one with a handle that screws into the to of the drill. This is a great thing to keep the drill perpendicular and steady since electric drills are often a bit heavier than their battery powered counterparts.

When drilling, learn to sight the drill so that it is straight up and down without a jig. Use a vertical line in the shop or on your bench to use as a guide at first if you are not comfortable with this. Learning to use your eye is not only good for drilling, but its also good practice in general. Imagine how liberating and time saving it will be when you don’t have to pick up a square or some other tool to see if you are on the money.

Power Sanders –  Random Orbit or Straight Sander?

Power Tools - using a random orbit sander to smooth a topAnother great power tool to have on hand when guitar building is a random orbit sander. These days random orbit sanders are most popular type of sander and they do a great job. Before there were random orbit sanders you had to be careful about grain direction when sanding. The motion of these power sanders was back and forth like hand sanding. If you moved across the grain you left some pretty good scratches that were hard to remove. The introduction of the random orbit sander made sanding to pieces of wood that meet at a 90 degree angle possible.

A random orbit sander will allow you to sand flush two pieces of wood that meet at a perpendicular without leaving sanding marks across the grain on either piece. However, the random orbit sander will leave faint swirl marks with sandpaper as fine as 220 grit. If you look close you can see them. And if you just finish over them you will see them through the finish. I typically sand with the random orbit up to 220 grit. Then to get rid of the marks give it a light hand sanding with 320 grit paper. It usually does the job.

In my power tool collection I also have an old straight sander which I still use. It is easier to sand things flat with a straight sander because with a random orbit. On a random orbit sander you typically sand with the outer edge of the disc which is on the soft side. This can create dips in the surface if you hoover over one spot too long. With a straight sander you can sand with the base flat on the surface. It is easier to get a flat surface that way.

I had to go with just one sander it would be a random orbit since.  A variable speed sander is best and the hook type paper is better than the adhesive in my opinion. There are plenty on the market. Just about all the power tool companies make one.

Other Useful Power Tools

In addition to routers, drills and sanders I also have a jig saw and a scroll saw. If you are making your own molds, templates, work-boards or forms of any kind a jig saw could be useful. Cutting large pieces of plywood or MDF can be difficult if not impossible to cut on a band saw unless you have a monster 36″ machine. It may be easier and safer to roughly cut to shape with a jig saw, get closer on the band saw and final shape on a spindle sander. A jig saw is also very useful if you have to cut a hole in the center of something. If you were to build a router table like mine in order to get the insert into the top of the table you need to cut a hole in the table top and carefully fit the insert. The best way to do this is with a jig saw.